Getting a grip on gas discussions - interview with Goda Perlaviciute
The role of gas in a sustainable energy transition is controversial. MVI researcher Goda Perlaviciute explains how she works together with private partners on controversial topics like these, and maintains an objective position as a researcher. Extraction of natural gas in the Netherlands and the earthquakes it induces in Groningen, risks and benefits of shale gas, advantages and disadvantages of biogas: gas is under constant public debate. ‘Gas is often presented as a relatively clean or green energy source, for example by the gas industry. Yet, some see this representation as misleading or even untruthful. Clearly, perceptions of gas are diverse and sometimes even conflicting’, says environmental psychologist Goda Perlaviciute from the University of Groningen.
The NWO Responsible Innovation project Responsible decision-making on gas: How individual and institutional factors influence public evaluations of gas she is involved in, aims to provide a deeper and more accurate understanding of public perceptions and evaluations of gas and different gas developments, thereby informing the process of responsible decision-making. Because of its pro-active nature, the project fits the NWO Responsible Innovation approach perfectly.
Interdisciplinary and multi-method approach
The project combines insights from psychology, political sciences, economics, and philosophy, and applies a multi-method approach. The research will involve interviews with various parties that are expected to have different, likely conflicting views on gas. Also, it will include experimental studies on factors influencing public evaluations and acceptability judgements, questionnaire studies with representative samples, and discourse analyses among key stakeholders in the gas and the more general energy sector.
Involving different parties
In this project, the researchers collaborate with knowledge institutes and representatives from industry, governmental bodies, interest groups, and NGO’s. ‘We deliberately aim for a broad group of representatives. Since discussions on gas can be a battlefield, we need to include and investigate the many different perspectives in order to better understand what factors influence public perceptions and acceptability judgements,’ says Perlaviciute.
Partners in the project strongly agree with this broad set-up, say Arendo Schreurs and Pooja Poonath from NOGEPA. ‘NOGEPA represents the interest of its members, who are responsible for gas production projects. As long as the Netherlands still needs gas, we are the ones who can take care of that in the best way possible. To be able to do so, it is essential that we stay connected with society. We want to know how people’s opinions are formed, and how support for decisions in the energy sector is created. To be able to get the complete picture, we need to hear all voices in the debate, and not only the ones that share our views.’
Role of researchers
Perlaviciute: ‘Our personal opinions about gas are irrelevant in the research process. We do not take sides in the debate; we are primarily interested in what factors underlie the different perspectives on gas. We aim to develop guidelines for decision-making processes that better take into account key public concerns and factors that drive public evaluations and acceptability judgements, such as important values in society and evaluations of the related costs, risks and benefits. This will improve responsible decision-making in the gas sector.’
‘The researchers should describe and interpret processes leading to public perceptions according to scientific standards, theories and methodology. The interpretation of these processes is important and very valuable for us to understand what is happening and why’, adds Schreurs.
Both the researchers and the private partners value the collaboration. ‘For our research, we need information on the latest trends and developments in the energy sector, including gas developments and new technologies. For this we interview scientists, but it is also important to know what is happening in industry and what perspective on gas companies take. Studying stakeholders’ perceptions helps us to map out existing discourses on gas and how they may influence public perceptions and acceptability judgements’, explains Perlaviciute. Industrial partners Scheurs and Poonath: ‘And for us, the project meetings provide good opportunities to interact with and learn from other players in the field. Also, during the meetings we get a quick overview of the latest scientific insights, which we can immediately incorporate in our daily business.’. ‘This project investigates the motives of individuals. Since that is an approach we cannot apply from behind a desk in The Hague, we are very happy to work together with academia this way.’
This project is not the first on controversial societal issues Perlaviciute is working on. ‘In our other NWO Responsible Innovation project Developing socially responsible innovations: The role of values and moral emotions, we have developed effective ways to work together with private partners on controversial topics. From our experience, companies, industries, governments and organisations put great value in theory-driven and empirically-grounded explanations of important societal and environmental issues. We as scholars need to communicate knowledge in a way that is accessible for these parties, so that they can use it effectively in improving their daily practises towards more responsible decision-making regarding issues that contribute to sustainable societal change.’